[21 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
At this point in the critical game, does Pixar and its premiere franchise, Toy Story, really need defending? Do you really need another writer waxing in a wholly self-indulgent manner about how John Lasster and his love of all things play produced the impetus for a literal cavalcade of creative genius? One would imagine that anyone under the age of 20 would have these movies memorized, repeated VHS to DVD viewings cementing an unquestionable love for Woody, Buzz, and their gang of kid-friendly tchotchkes. Now the latest hi-tech -ism - the proposed theatrical experience “recreation” known as Blu-ray - is being used to once again woo the home video aficionado to their local B&M. Frankly, it’s unclear whether these technological marvels need further scientific sprucing up. They were already so great to being with.
By now, the plots of both films are more or less rote. In Toy Story, Woody the cowboy grows concerned that his place as favored amusement will be usurped by clueless spaceman action figure Buzz Lightyear. While trying to one up each other, they both wind up in the clutches of the cruel next door neighbor, the vicious bully Sid. In Toy Story 2, Woody is stolen by a collectibles geek who wants a complete set of the Wild West character’s merchandise to sell to a museum in Japan. Buzz, along with a few of Andy’s other playthings, set out to rescue their friend, unaware of the dangers, and dilemmas, they will face along the way. Each movie is made with the utmost of care, both brimming with imagination, adventure, and sequences of show-stopping visual acumen. The first effort is quaint in its wistful nostalgia. The second amplified everything to new levels of emotional heft.
It’s hard to hate what Pixar did with these two films. Even in light of their far more accomplished masterpieces of late, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 contain the creative genes that spawned a very special family film empire. Without the experimentation and push to better their craft, without the various miracles uncovered in both approach and artistic accomplishment, there wouldn’t have been a Finding Nemo, a Wall-E, or an Incredibles.
Pixar has always used its short films and features as a way of improving the platform, of defining new ways to render tricky real life elements like hair, fur, and human faces. Toy Story shows these initial baby steps, from Andy’s awkward façade to Sid’s scary demon like designs. While the toys are captured in near flawless finery, the rest of the narrative facets feel like works in progress.
Toy Story 2 is where it all came together, however, from the cartoon concept of people to the discovery of sympathy and strong emotional ties. The cowgirl doll Jessie gets a solo sequence (the song “When She Loved Me”) so touching, so unbelievably moving in its one special Summer loveliness that it almost threatens to overwhelm the entire movie. That’s the power of Pixar, the undeniable strength they’ve managed to tap into throughout the last decade or so.
That’s why they’ve gone ten-for-ten in the masterpiece department. And yet it’s crucial to understand Toy Story and Toy Story 2‘s role in such reverence. Had they not been hits, had audiences believed that CG was just a fad that couldn’t completely kill off their love of hand drawn animation, we might not be having this discussion. Indeed, many studios have tried to duplicate Pixar’s opulent eye candy approach, but the results have been more Robots than Ratatouille.
That’s because movies like Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are about more than fanciful visual wizardry. This is a company that has always believed in character first, narrative second, and the spellbinding strategies of dimensional drawings last. That’s why Blu-ray or regular digital, it really doesn’t matter. After all, if both works could “survive” the 3D update offered back in October, they can manage such a minor technical tweak.
One word of warning: these discs do not offer the three dimensional experience from the two-week limited engagement. They are really nothing more than previous packages reinvented. We get some of the same filmmaker memories, in-depth making-ofs, sneak peeks at the upcoming Toy Story 3 and some wonderful, exclusive to this release bonus items. Perhaps the best aspect of these Blu-rays however is the unbelievable 1080p image. It is truly astonishing, as close to pristine as currently possible.
But the question remains - is all this necessary? Isn’t Disney just doing what it does best - finding a financial tie-in to something it plans on overhyping prior to release in a few months, making sure the marketing machine heads into early overdrive to keep profiles high (and profits even higher)? As much as the film fanatic empire wants these movies in the best possible versions possible, doesn’t the pending arrival of a new installment of the series argue for yet another digital reconfiguration down the line, complete with more “new” bells and whistles? And who knows, a viable 3D option might just be a few prototypes away, meaning we could very easily see an attempt to bring last Fall’s theatrical experience to the masses. And let’s not even mention the potential box set…
Not that Pixar really needs it, mind you. This past year, the sensational Oscar winner Up introduced the world to yet another example of the company reaching creatively and the results were resplendent. As usual, Pixar remains the bellwether for treating animation with old school classicism care - emphasis on story and its telling, character and the careful manipulation/management of same. Sure, there is eye candy a’plenty and more imagination and pure optical refinement than a dozen wannabe cartoon pretenders. So Toy Story and Toy Story 2 may need the new format for preservation’s sake, and purists will definitely dig the reference quality tech specs. All new added content aside, these are some of the best examples of what the artform can strive for when true visionaries work behind the scenes. The legacy - high definition or not - speaks for itself.